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"The republic is at a moment of truth. What is being questioned is the effectiveness of our integration model."

Dominique de Villepin,
Prime Minister of France, November 8, 2005

From Paris to Cairo

Resistance of the Unacculturated

By Adel Iskandar and Hakem Rustom 

Contradictory notions coexist in a unique concoction, albeit uncomfortably. The twentieth century has already been accented by tensions between the rise in ethnic conflict and societal disaggregation on one hand and alliance-building and unitarian thought on the other. Volatile ethnic strife in Australia, Lebanon, Mexico, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Chechnya and everywhere in between has forced the notion of political identity into the spotlight of global consciousness with exceeding urgency. From Paris to Cairo, minority status, national identity and assimilation appear at the forefront of these cultural struggles.    

Pascal Rossignol / Reuters file

In the land of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," at the heart of France’s integration model, there is an inherent contradiction. Official state policy suggests that the “integration” of migrants and their descendants is a vital matter. On institutional and policy levels, all complications related to migrant and racial issues are branded “integration” problems. Consequently, the state has no language or mechanism to describe or deal with such abstractions as marginalization and multiculturalism. France’s cabinet committee on ‘integration’ and affiliated think-tank Haut Conseil à l’Intégration (The High Council for Integration) were created to manage these problem as recently as 1989. With a violent incident in a suburb of Lyon in October 1990, seeing the storm gather, the government was swift to create a new Ministry for Urban Affairs a mere two months later.

Republican values of integration and assimilation, as stated by de Villepin above, are central to political debates in France, on both practical and ideological levels. With a colonial past that obsessed about strengthening relationships with the “mandates” and colonies and the active dissemination of French culture, the exploitative endeavours of magisterial affairs where of a lesser importance. The French state’s relationship to its former colonial migrant community from North and West Africa remains startlingly unchanged (especially towards Arabs and Muslims from Algeria). The government’s management of the banlieues (‘suburbs’ on the outskirts of French cities, equivalent to American and British ”inner cities”) is reminiscent of the arms-length posture towards the nation’s colonial appendages. Distant enough not to be threatening, they are subjects to a steady rhetoric of self-aggrandizing Frenchness. Conversely, while they are continually told they are at the very center of French society, they remain both figuratively and literally on its fringe.

To this day, the French state does not collect data on the ethnic origin and religious affiliation of its citizens under the pretext of avoiding the stigmatization and enhancing the integration of newly-naturalized citizens. Only non-French citizens, foreigners and expatriates residing in France are subject to data collection. This makes it impossible to document and monitor unemployment and other indicators of disparity known to be prevalent among minority ethnic and racial groups in France. Hence, minority identities and marginalization are rendered invisible in a republic whose protectionist “integration model” subsumes and digests its margins.

The foundations of states are supported by mythical narratives and definitions. Those whose identities fall outside the grand narrative of the state often become its “others.” The late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described Algerian migrants to France with a term used by Socrates, atopos (Greek for “of no” or “out of place”). In his Preface to AbdelMalek Sayad’s book The Suffering of the Immigrant, Bourdieu identifies the migrant as “[n]either citizen nor foreigner, not truly on the side of the Same not really on the side of the Other, he exists within that ‘bastard’ place, of which Plato also speaks, on the frontier between being and social non-being. Displaced, in the sense of being incongruous and inopportune, he is a source of embarrassment.”

Hassan Majid, a third generation Algerian immigrant living in a banlieue of Toulouse, is himself atopos. “Of course I am French, I was born here, my father was born here,” he says in quick affirmation to his belonging in this country. However, he just as swiftly reveals a far more encumbered alter ego. “Everyday I am reminded that I am not French. Me and my people are seen as racailles [French for impure and worthless], delinquents, unwanted.” In a state that does not acknowledge his marginal and hybrid identity, Majid’s image as a vagabond overshadows the empty words of state integration. While constantly being reminded he is a first class citizen in France, his life experiences betray this.

Shunned and neglected by mainstream discourse, Majid expresses the racial strife that is most tangible in these banlieues. Migrants from former French colonies in North and West Africa live in disparately impoverished areas. A 1992 report of the Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales found that youth of migrant families account for 30-60% of all young people suffering from acute socio-economic marginalization. The media coverage of incidents in the banlieues is usually divorced from this socio-economic context of deprivation, poverty, and alienation, and instead attributed to race and ethnicity. In a 1996 study of coverage of suburban politics conducted Alec G. Hargreaves, the Director of the Winthrop-King Institute for Contemporary French and Francophone Studies at Florida State University, found that most representations of the banlieues link criminality to foreignness. The ethnic alienation of the banlieus inhabitants is presented in the media as a consequence of unlawful behavior that poses a threat to the social order. With the majority of the banlieues’ inhabitants being migrant families, the link between criminality and foreignness becomes both convincing and inevitable. However, any discussion of such problems in terms of ethnicity is a threat to the official rhetoric on the egalitarianism of the French Republic. It wasn’t until the recent incidents in Paris did Prime Minster de Villepin acknowledge the failings of the French integration system, promising social and economic assistance to the immigrant neighborhoods. While these programs are a step in the right direction, they accomplish little in resolving the identity struggles of these migrant communities.

The late Algerian French scholar of migration Abdelmalek Sayad—who spent his lifetime studying north African migrants—explained that many came to France with hopes and aspirations only to watch these dissolve with the failure to become functional members of a French society. Like Franz Fanon before him, Sayad speaks of Algerians coming to France feeling “French,” only to be treated with inferiority as foreigners and cheap laborers. In Sayad’s own words “the immigrant remains an immigrant forever no matter how permanent and continues his presence…and no matter how integrated he is.” French society’s narrow definition of ethnic, religious, and class identity constrains these migrants. A society that failed to recognize their hybrid identity created and embattled and embittered population congested to the point of collective rapture.

The French rap scene, dominated by Arab and Muslim artists from the banlieues speaks for itself and a community of disempowered, overburdened youth with few hopes and a growing identity crisis. With songs about downtrodden lives and resistance against social order, their songs reflect voices of anguished youth in a community under siege. With the state refusing to recognize their minority status, their hybrid culture leaves them unaccounted for. Absent from census figures, the communities and their concerns are invisible. Instead, the republic’s insistence on not adopting a multicultural model has left those of hybrid descent with two options, either to choose their yearning for their mere patries (mother countries) and accept excommunication from the republic’s identity or to diffuse into French society but remain at its outskirts. For most, this choice has already been made for them. Failed by the integration model, the dismissal of their minority status has not made their identities disappear. Instead, it has rendered them immiscible in a French society that frowns upon diversity.

The result of a failure to recognize diversity, marginalization, stigma and collective identity has been a cultural insurrection to assert their existence. Sylla, an 18-year old from Rougemont who participated in some of the recent riots sums it up. "We burn because it's the only way to make ourselves heard, because it's solidarity with the rest of the non-citizens in this country, with this whole underclass. Because it feels good to do something with your rage.”

Across the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa, another state is struggling with the simmering rage of political identity. On the banks of the Nile, an Egypt struggles to manage an indigenous population whose minority religious identity is a matter of national security. Since the 1952 coup that overthrew the monarchy and established a republic in Egypt headed by military men, the state has incorporated Islam as part of its self-definition (yet Egypt is not an Islamic republic as Iran). Islam is declared the official religion of the state, with a constitution indicating that the President should be Muslim and the Sharia (Islamic Law) is the main source of legislation. The prime minister and top cabinet and ministerial posts are traditionally occupied by Muslims, in particular the Interior, Information, Defence, Justice, and the Foreign portfolios in addition to the majority of Egypt’s ambassadors. The two posts now occupied by members of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Christian minority are the Ministries of Environment and Finance. The governors of all Egyptian provinces and the presidents of all Egyptian national universities are Muslims.

Pope Shenouda III has been forced to take a more political role than most of his predecessors but remains a moderate voice for rapprochement with the Egypt's Muslim majority

The Egyptian government enforces strict intellectual censorship through the religious authority of Al-Azhar, which shields official Islamic interpretations from potential challengers. While books alleging the corruption of Christian scriptures and rationalizing conversion to Islam are plentiful on Cairo newsstands, similar books on Islam are immediately banned by Al-Azhar and state authorities implement the ban forcefully. It is within this context that the latest sectarian violence in Alexandria was ignited as a church play allegedly narrated a heavy-handed critique of Islam and attested the superiority of Christianity.

With no official census to indicate the number of Egyptian Christians, figures are contested by the government and the Coptic Church, listing Christians anywhere between 6% and 12% of the total population respectively. While the state maintains an official unified national identity for both Muslim and Christian Egyptians, the very foundations of the state attest to a religious identity that many non-Muslims believe is alienating. The otherness of Egyptian Christians is not simply based on religious belonging, but is legislated and documented in the state’s civil registry. Government-issued IDs list the holders’ religion and at times facilitate stigmatization. Furthermore, this identification determines how laws are applied. A Christian man cannot marry a Muslim woman without conversion, a Christian cannot inherit from a Muslim relative, a Muslim cannot convert to Christianity, etc. The government, therefore, protects and maintains the superiority of its Muslim majority and the sanctity of its creed. This along with growing sectarian animosity in society are forcing the Christian minority into political confinement, pushing them towards the margins of Egyptian social landscape.

Before the 1952 Coup, Copts had an active and visible role in the nation’s politics, constituted around 10% of the parliamentary membership, which has dropped to near zero. Over the last four decades, preferential policies have alienated Christian from social and political public spheres, thereby consolidated the power and influence of Christian religious institutions in this community. During this period of increasing marginalization, the Coptic Church became a fundamental part of Coptic identity, catapulting its head Pope Shenouda III into a greater political role than most of his predecessors. Under the umbrella of the Church, Copts have the space to operate as full members of a community in absence of potential discrimination. "Copts are not putting themselves forward in public life. They are not appreciated, nobody welcomes them. Why should they bother?" said prominent Coptic writer and thinker Dr. Milad Hanna. The result is the further disappearance of Copts from public consciousness. 

Fundamentally, the Copts’ hybrid identity as both Egyptians and Christians poses a challenge to the perceived and vocalized uniformity of Egyptianness, a challenge that in recent months boiled over into the Alexandria riots. With the increasing alienation of Copts in the public sphere of politics in Egypt, their perception as "others" has become problematic. With an increasingly active Coptic community in the Diaspora soliciting support from Western politicians for their causes in Egypt, they are met with increased animosity domestically. The growing impression that the Christian community in Egypt is involved in evangelizing and proselytizing in a majority Muslim country has further infuriated Muslims and inflamed mainstream discourse. Recent events have helped solidify the perceptions of Copts as uncommitted to “national interests,” serving another cause beyond Egypt, and rejecting integration into mainstream Egyptian society. Some Copts, mostly in the Diaspora, have adopted a pro-US stance on policies in the Middle East. This has bred much contempt among mainstream Egyptian Muslims. Furthering this contempt towards the Coptic community is the omnipresence of the US ambassador at official Coptic celebrations and increasingly-visible Coptic public figures with dual Egyptian-US citizenship.

A small group of Diasporic Copts have turned to radical slogans unrepresentative of their domestic constituencies 

A community commonly considered the last remaining descendents of the ancient Egyptians, the Copts are now a minority cornered by a society that promises integration but delivers stigma, preaches equal citizen rights and delivers discrimination. However, a growing number of activist Egyptians from the ranks of this hyphenated minority have created ripples that interrogate national identity. Unable to acculturate into Egyptian society, some of these Copts are building their own public sphere, since the state and society one are longer perceived to be inclusive to all Egyptians. The Church has recently expanded its outreach through a new satellite channel called Agapi (Greek/Coptic for “love”), and demonstrations by Copts against mistreatment and other scandal-ridden affairs are no longer infrequent.  However, other Coptic organizations, based mostly outside of the country, are waging a far more expansive ideological and political battle against state policies and Islamic religious groups and institutions in Egypt with mostly drastic results for the very constituency they are allegedly defending. Their efforts tend to be met with a three-fold reactionary retaliation by a majority Muslim public unable to comprehend the struggles of an unaccounted for hybrid minority and are certainly unsympathetic with some of its most right-wing factions.

Instead, their activities are seen as a cleavage in Egyptian society. Their refusal to accept the status quo effectively relays a message of divisiveness. While society often proclaims a singular identity for all Egyptians regardless of creed, some of the Copts’ reactions are seen as a desecration of Egyptian society’s delicate cultural monolith. Most Copts living in Egypt prefer a balance; the recognition of their identity and concerns not at the expense of being further stigmatized. With little being done to create a cultural rapprochement in Egypt, and the state turning a blind eye to concerns often deemed negligible, there is now a resurgence of reactionary identity politics. The Church and its Patriarch taking a moderate tranquil stance of rapprochement on recent events, the coast is clear for Diasporic Coptic groups with an agendized political sectarian motives and sturdy economic backing to affect and monopolize discourse on minority affairs in Egypt. All of which will likely aggravate the status of Copts in Egypt.

Fundamentally, the struggles of acculturation and assimilation are nothing new to the modern nation-state. From the integration model in France, to the US melting pot to Canada’s “fruit salad” multiculturalism, diversity has been a prickly issue since the beginning of the last century. With the advent of convenient air travel and modern communication, complete assimilation is no longer the only resort for migrants and minorities. The maintenance of equilibrium between assimilation and the celebration of cultural uniqueness has become an unenviably colossal task for contemporary nation-states. The notions of nationality and citizenship, upon which they were founded, are being interrogated and must continue to be critically examined for the cause of equality and human freedom.

Ethnic and religious minority struggles are not identical. While little appears to be common between ethnic migrants from French former colonies in ghettoized suburban dwellings and indigenous religious minorities in urban and rural Egypt, at their heart there lies common disconcerted flux. From Paris to Cairo and other locales in between, communities of hybrid identity have long been coerced, neglected, unaccounted for, and/or unassimilated by their respective states and societies. Most are caught between the acceptance of uniform national identities and the promise of living dignified unalienable lives. Today, many of these very communities are embroiled in identity struggles; asserting their hybridity and struggling against second class status while finding themselves on the fringe of their national cultural landscapes. In a state of atopos, these communities are unable to shake off their stigmas or seek empowerment within, and with state policies intent on maintaining order at the expense of addressing their concerns, the implosion of societal unrest by Muslims in France and Christians in Egypt may be airings of resistance of the global unacculturated.

Adel Iskandar is an Adjunct professor of international communication at the American University, Washington, DC
. Hakem Rustom is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on North African migrants in France. Iskandar and Rustom are co-editors of a forthcoming volume on Edward Said.
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